Timur Bekmambetov: Wanted by Hollywood
by Paul Fischer
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Kazakhstani director Timur Bekmambetov has made quite the impact inRussia, his adoptive country, with his box-office hits Night Watch and its successful sequel, films that managed to cause quite a sensation in the U.S. The director brings his own unique vision the studio blockbuster Wanted, which features crazy stunts, a naked Angelina Jolie and a sardonic view of contemporary humanity in this rather unique assassins’ group that recruits a downtrodden accountant whose father was apparently murdered by a rogue member. Bekmambetov talked exclusively to Paul Fischer.
Paul Fischer: What did the producers see in your work that made them want to go after you to direct this film?
Timur Bekmambetov: I think because I kind of get to make human stories, dramatic stories, look like big action movies.
PF: Were you familiar with the comic books that this movie is based on?
TB: No, no, no. I never read it. The first time I saw the comic book was a week, two weeks before I read the scripts. And I didn’t find how to make this movie. And then I found the comic books, and it became clear.
PF: What was required to adapt the comic books into the screenplay? How much did they have to compress?
TB: Compress? Oh, no. You have to add. Because comic books, the onus of the comic book is much more narrow. And to make a big summer blockbuster, you have to find—you have to make it more—how to say this? Broader.
PF: How many comic books were there to begin with?
TB: No, no, it’s just one graphic novel but there were several chapters. But for me, it was one book. I read it once, as one piece.
PF: So this was basically an adaptation of the first book.
TB: Yes. Yeah.
PF: I’m wondering whether or not it was important when you were casting this to have a balance of movie stars and actors, as opposed to just being movie stars. Angelina Jolie is the big movie star in this movie.
TB: I will tell you a secret. She’s a great actress. She’s very good—a very, very deep, talented, ancient-Greek-tragedy actress. And the movie star is her status. It’s not who she is.
PF: But James McAvoy, who is also a great actor, seems to be perfectly cast as this kind of trodden down Everyman figure. Is that what your intention was, when you were trying to figure out what to do about casting Wesley?
TB: Yeah. That’s exactly right. It was very important to find two stars, like Morgan Freeman and Angelina Jolie. They represent the world of the legendary authority otherworld. Yeah? Like, the others. And then to find an actor like James McAvoy, who is a great actor, and has never been in these kinds of movies. Because then, for the audience, it will be unpredictable, and it will be easy to identify with him and to follow him. And unpredictable in the whole movie’s journey and adventure. You don’t know how it will end. It’s the only way to create the arc of his character, for the audience.
PF: This is a movie that—if you take away all the action sequences, which we’ll talk about in a moment—you referred to Angelina as having the qualities of a Greek tragic actress. Do you see this movie as being, in some ways as being a kind of a Greek tragedy?
TB: It is. For me, it is. “Action movie,” it’s just runner. It’s just a dress coat. It’s just dress. It’s an ancient tragedy, dressed as an action movie, because the core of the movie, it’s a drama. It’s really deep and interesting, and touchable story. Unusual for action movies.
PF: There’s also a degree of sexiness about this movie that you don’t find a lot in American films. Was it hard for you to persuade Angelina Jolie to do that – there’s a nude scene in this film, which I wasn’t expecting, either. Which I’m sure will please a lot of her fans.
TB: Yeah. But it’s very delicate, because when you have an atomic bomb in your hands, like Angelina Jolie, then you have to be very careful with that. You cannot show too much. Because – dangerous.
PF: And also, she’s a very private person. I was wondering how she felt about doing those. How much discussion you had with her about how that was going to be done?
TB: Well, she was very excited to do this. And it wasn’t punishment for her. And she was good in it. So there was no dilemmas, and dramas around it, because it’s part of her character, and it’s part of the story. And she knows why, and what the purpose – why she did it, or what’s the purpose. It’s part of the story. It’s not just a scene with a naked girl.
PF: Having said that the action sequences mask this very powerful story, the action sequences are truly extraordinary. You seem to want to go places where very few filmmakers within the action genre have gone before. Was that also your intention? To deliver action sequences that were basically very unique?
TB: I just think if you do what you like, what you want, and how you can do things, it will be unique. I never had a problem, I never had a second of thinking how to make something unique. Just, the story that we had was unique, and the characters were unique. And the action scenes became, yes, unique, because it was just part of the story. As I know, if I’m trying to do something unique, then it will be like everybody. If you’re doing something specific, like—what’s the part of your story—then it will be unique.
PF: How much planning went into those sequences—for example, the major car chase sequence, which is stunning. How much planning went into all those major set pieces?
TB: Well, a lot. We had three blocks. We shot it three times. We shot it the first time, we shot a second unit shooting in Chicago. Then we shot it with the first unit, with our actors, and then we shot another second-unit piece. And there was one person who was very, very important for the process. His name is Nick Roger, the stunt coordinator and second-unit director for this sequence. And he’s a talent. He helped a lot to make this scene unique.
PF: Did you do a lot of storyboarding before you shot?
TB: Not only the storyboarding. We made animatics. Everything was previewed before. There was animatics, there was animations with every trick.
PF: Was there a lot of stuff that you couldn’t use because it just didn’t work in the movie, and will end up on the DVD?
TB: No. It’s funny—it’s a question of the freedom. Like, people are asking me, did you have a problem with the studio? Or, how many restrictions you had? And I feel—I didn’t have any restrictions.
PF: I presume they told you at the beginning, it was always made clear that even though this is a summer blockbuster kind of movie, that you were only going to do it as an R-rated film, right?
TB: Yeah. And—yes, of course. And do you know what’s happened when—10 days ago, I don’t remember how—two weeks ago, the DVD department of Universal asked me to give them deleted scenes for DVD. We didn’t find any. There were no deleted scenes in the movie. It’s—poor DVD department. They don’t have any pieces to sell. And everything that we shot, all these brave and risky and very arty moments—they’re in the movie. We did it.
PF: Timur, you grew up in the Soviet Union.
PF: I’m just wondering, before Gorbachev, and before the final collapse of the Soviet Union, were you at all influenced by American movies? Or were you able to be influenced in any way by American popular culture?
TB: Yes, of course. Of course, we had a chance to see some American movies. Not so many, unfortunately. I remember the movie called MacKenna’s Gold.
PF: With Gregory Peck.
TB: Yes! And Omar Sharif, I think.
PF: That’s right. That’s right, yes.
TB: It was a good movie. Big. And from that time, I liked big American movies. I really liked big American movies. Movies of the big, huge empire.
PF: How realistic was it of you as a young man growing up in the Soviet Union to become a filmmaker?
TB: To be a filmmaker? I was an engineer. I studied as an engineer for two years, and then I saw one movie, and I decided that I didn’t want to be an engineer anymore. And this movie was an Italian movie called Dillinger Is Dead. Marco Ferreri movie. All a movie about one person in one room for two hours. And it’s very powerful. And I was in Italy, now, making press. And Italian journalists asked me the question. And then I remembered this movie. It was—it changed my life.
PF: I guess it was Night Watch that really established you. What was the journey like for you to make your first major feature film? I mean, Night Watch was 2004. It’s not that long ago, really. So, what was the journey for you to get that movie made, and recognized?
TB: Night Watch? It’s just nothing unusual. It’s an audience. I feel like the audience was waiting for that. And I had a lot of things to tell people. And I had a lot of ideas, and I made some commercials during the ’90s, and I had a lot of ideas. Visual ideas, and some messages and characters, and everything. And this is inside. And it was ready to be transferred into the movie images.
PF: Did you expect those movies to be as big in America as they were in Russia?
TB: I made a movie only for Russian people. For Soviet Union. For the people who live in the Soviet Union. Because there was very delicate and very specific cultural references in it. And I never think about, I never think, “It will be popular somewhere else.” And I was surprised that people understood and were entertained here, for example, in the United States. Because it’s so different.
PF: What is the state of the Russian film industry? How tough is it to get films made over there?
TB: When we showed the first Night Watch, there was only 5% movies with Russian. Now it’s 30%. It’s happened during the four years, and it grows every year. I think, in a few years, it will be 50/50 with American movies.
PF: Will it be important for you to try to find a way to work equally in both Russia and America?
TB: I think it’s fun. But there’s a huge India industry, and that will be interesting for me, too, to shoot Bollywood movie, for example. Why not?
PF: Are you contracted to do a sequel to Wanted? Do you think a sequel to Wanted is something that would interest you?
TB: We had a lot of ideas we didn’t realize. But I think the audience will decide. Not me, you, or something else. The audience will decide if we will do this or not.
PF: Would you like to do something small and intimate next?
TB: Or different. I don’t know, something really different.
PF: You’re also a writer, obviously. I mean, are you writing any material?
TB: Yeah. Yeah. I have a lot of parts in development here in Russia. I just want to hear the reaction of the audience, before I will move forward.
PF: What other kind of films do you have a burning desire to make?
TB: You know what? Six months ago, I released in Russia, a Russian comedy. A romantic Christmas comedy.
TB: Yes. I assistant-directed. It’s a sequel of a famous Russian TV Christmas comedy. It was on TV for 30 years. And we made a sequel about children. And it had $55 million box office, in Russia.
Paul Fischer is originally from Australia. Now he is an interviewer and film critic living in Hollywood.
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